Peace & Pata Island.

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Pata Island, Sulu, 2014.

“Salaam alaikum kanyu katan. Ako si Nursima H. Tolentino, Grade 3 pupil. Ito po ang ginuhit ko, isang pulis. Gusto ko sa aking paglaki maging pulis at maging isang tagabantay ng bayan.”

“Gusto ko pong tumulong sa mga mahihirap at may sakit.”

“Sana po matupad ko ang pangarap kong maging isang guro.”

Scenes from better days, worth remembering today. We ventured to Pata Island (mentioned today by Mohagher Iqbal as among the sites where gruesome massacres occurred in Mindanao) to turnover classrooms and we were greeted by young students who were asked to draw what they hoped to be.

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We were joined by no less than Gen. Guerrero of WestMinComm–a proud product of the Philippine Public School System. I keep these images in mind and replay the video I took of them speaking whenever I feel as if I’ve lost hope in our nation. Why? Two things: First, out of tragedy can spring hope–as it does in Pata today, where children can dream and are not bound to repeat mistakes of the past. Second, individual acts matter–the commitment of few to their communities and the will of others to see a future for our children through education–this is what has taught me to work hard and hope even more. If you doubt that there can be peace in Mindanao, just you watch. It will happen. These kids will make it happen.

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Trusting what is difficult.

Yesterday we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Manila which took place from February 3 to March 3, 1945. This month, in solidarity with older friends of mine who are still alive and have lived to tale the harrowing tale of Manila burning, I would like to take some time to really think about the implications of war–to think about the truths that are passed on to us and also interrogate our forgetfulness. As I type this, news of Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh of Jordan fills my feed. He has just been burnt to death in a cage by ISIS militants. Last week, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto was beheaded. Here in the Philippines, we lost a great deal in the Mamasapano incident. My thoughts are with their families–but I am also alarmed as an educator. I ask myself where our ideas have taken us and I also want to know why, despite being better informed, our ideas about war and violence have not changed very much? Why have we allowed fear to get the better of us–and if we do choose peace, why do I sense that we are afraid still? Apt reflections for Valentine’s day, too. I’m reminded of Rilke who in his 7th letter to young Kappus writes: “It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” Love is difficult. Peace is difficult. But I can only trust what is difficult.

Lessons from Luqman.

In my anger over the deaths of so many men, I forgot to pray. Allah, in his graciousness, found me weary and comforted me by way of Luqman, the wise man after whom the 31st sura of the Qur’an is named.

God created us as one soul and as one soul God will bring us back to life. (Qur’an – Luqman 31.28)

Luqman was an Ethiopian slave. One day he was bought and his master, sensing something extraordinary about his captive, asked him to slaughter a sheep and bring him its worst parts. Luqman did as he was told and returned with the sheep’s tongue and its heart. The master, puzzled, sent him back to slaughter another sheep and this time asked that he return with its best parts. Luqman set forth again to butcher the sheep and returned to his master bearing its tongue and its heart.

How could the worst in a man also be the best? Luqman answered: If a man is pure, the tongue and the heart are his sweetest parts and if he is wicked, they too are as wicked!

Indeed, there are no words to express the great loss of life and the even greater loss of answers to countless questions I have unresolved in my heart. But I do believe, as it is written in the holy Qur’an, that God created us as one soul—and I do pray that moving forward, I find the will to keep my tongue and my heart pure. Amen.

A Mourning Diary: Things I Need to Explain to Myself.

Having always been in a state of mourning, carrying with me an infinite supply of things, people, and places to feel for–I find it helps to write. To explain things to myself, to delve deeper into my motivations, to challenge my assumptions, to question why things are the way they are.

I’m not an angry person (or maybe that depends–have I had my coffee? have I eaten? how much stupidity have I had to deal with on top of an exhausting day?) I just really feel very deeply and while I used to be ashamed about this, I’ve learned to write–to listen to others, to understand myself, to see things as I know them to be true.

Here is a record of my mourning. A diary of sorts, a record of every Facebook post I’ve made since becoming aware of the fate of those who died in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

January 26, 10:14pm Could we kindly ask all media outlets to please refrain from publishing images and videos showing the mangled bodies of our PNP-SAF? Everyone publishing it has apologized or warned us about their use which proves to me that they know it’s not correct and yet they insist on publishing it anyway–for whose right to know, I wonder? What benefit is it to the public and to the families of those who’ve lost loved ones to have these images shared online? What is the justifiable need to have these photos out for consumption? Where is the respect and dignity for the dead?

January 27, 8:49pm All-out-war and Auschwitz on my feed. I don’t want to be a kill joy especially when friends make jokes about the South, talk funny about “terrorists,” or give Muslim-sounding nicknames to bearded friends. I try to convince myself that it’s all just humor–then again, I have friends in the deep South and even without them, books taught me that things like the Holocaust happen. Who’s left to laugh then? Bleeding heart over all those who were killed in Mamasapano. They are proof that a world like ours needs tolerance, peace, and compassion.

But God, today, I nearly bit my tongue off holding in the need to tell so many people that they’re assholes for wanting to go to war. Assholes.

January 28, 10:11pm My to do list: To embrace the mothers, the fathers, the wives, and the children of the fallen. To embrace my friends in the AFP and the PNP. To tell them that their sacrifice isn’t wasted on rhetoric, isn’t lost on us. To affirm that without them and their engagement there can be no lasting peace. To convince them that though there is a chain of command, it is to the people that they are accountable–not to legacies of proud men. To say, with full conviction, that they have served US–THE FILIPINO PEOPLE–well. Justice is the measure, justice is the measure.

January 29  Sir, all due respect, your men needed you today more than yesterday. No need for speeches, frills, and thrills–just your presence on the tarmac so those left behind wouldn’t feel as alone as they do now. The power of your presence, not the presence of your power–which they already respect because no matter what you tell them to do, they will do it as part of their duty. Karangalan po nilang paglingkuran tayo, trabaho po nila ito. 42 caskets arrived in Manila today bearing only some of the deceased. 42 people.

January 29  Today was emotionally taxing. Exhausted, weary but very much moved by the Chaplain who earlier prayed for a sense of belonging–that we might all feel like we belong to one family, one nation.

Time stops when we lose lives the way we did but work continues. It must. What did I learn today? I learned to value purpose and responsibility. In the context of management, what gives employees pride is knowing they can get things done, knowing they contribute to a greater whole. In the context of a nation, it’s that reminder that we are all accountable to and for each other. No more comments on leadership. Basta, my sense of belonging is intact–I know and am responsible for you. Thank you ‪#‎SAF44‬ for taking care of me.

January 29   A Cautionary Tale of Mourning. At around this time last year, I lost a few friends to a horrible bus accident in Bontoc. What I learned then was that sometimes, though we see the capacity of events to become “triggers for reform” and “better ways of doing things,” it pays to just be present to the pain of those who lose their nearest and dearest. Without meaning to judge, past or present, let me just explain: I watched then as some of the bereaved became driven by the loss they felt coupled with the public’s ire and anger to protest. Granted, it’s their right and I support them, because better transport benefits all–part of me felt like I needlessly fed the grieving person’s pain and anxiety. It struck me then that we, that I, fought on the energy of my conviction and yet returned to the comfort and joy of my family while friends related to the deceased did not.

What of those who lose people and fight only to come home to empty beds, quiet rooms where the laughter no longer echoes? Does our anger console them–did mine? Or did it cast a darker shade on an already moonless night?

I feel the need to explain because I’ve just left a comment on the wall of a former government official. Many of them have spoken and some journalists have compelled them all to share their expertise. The result is a flood of ‘what ifs’ and ‘what should have been dones’–and I catch myself nodding saying, “Oo nga naman! Talaga” or “What a hypocrite!”

But the truth is–we are not there anymore–we are HERE where so many on all sides have fallen. Families are grieving. Do we really want to manipulate them (the way we do with the poor, the farmers, the fisherfolk, transgender men and women, and all other marginalized sectors) when they are most vulnerable–just so we can pat ourselves on the back and say we are right? Or so we can move agendas forward but remain divided, hurt, broken (in the truly Jesuit sense)?

This is the message I left on that person’s wall (I hope he reads this and understands what compelled me to call him out on his ‘what if’):

Well Sir, all due respect, you aren’t president. I understand your frustration but I wonder how much it helps to share these kinds of opinions at a moment when tensions are high and emotions tend to cloud people’s judgment? Is this really what a nation in mourning needs to hear? Granted, everyone has a way to do (or not do) what needs to be done. I share the public’s hurt but feel that now is the time to be in solidarity with those who lost loved ones. I cannot imagine the pain of a mother who, on top of mourning for a deceased son, must also make room for suspicion and anxiety. That said, I do truly respect your having been there, and done that–but all the more, I count on you and those you served with to exercise the kind of leadership we all criticize the current administration for not having.

January 30, 1:31pmEverybody complains about the speech but I wonder how many of you would find the words and the wisdom eloquent enough to please everyone? To capture the essence of the hurt and hard choices? As part of our mourning, maybe we can also reflect on our own shortcomings? THE FACT THAT WE AREN’T ALWAYS WORTH OUR SOLDIER’S LIVES. Maybe it’s good to examine choices we make? How many times have we let ourselves down? Wasted the blood of the young, the upright. Yabang lang natin to criticize but always remember–the pain is not yours. It belongs to the families, the leaders who make tough decisions. Remember too what Mr. Noli Taliño said: Get to know your men and women in uniform. Listen to them, listen to understand–not to judge. Perhaps when we make individual choices about who to vote, when to duck a ticket, or break the law, or cheat–we might remember the 44?

Sorry, but just for today, let’s declare a Twitter/Facebook truce and stop spitting on the graves of these valiant men. Let’s grieve, not opine.

Sarap maging Pilipino kapag may SAF na proprotekta sa’yo. Salamat mga kapatid. Mabuhay kayo!

January 30, 11:44pm Met with the families of our 44 and bade our men goodbye. It was a night of sweet stories–what they were like as fathers, what their wives loved about them, what their friends used to call them. Moved by the sacrifice of the Bisayas and the Mindanaoans–but became very, very emotional when I realized that I understood the Ilocano vocabulary for grief. So many of them from places I know by heart. Kakabsat ko, Dios ti agngina. Agyamanak kinyayu.

Off they go–I had the supreme pleasure of practicing Iloko tonight and you know what moved me? During the departure honors, SAF officers were lined up saluting the fallen. I positioned myself near the doorway where the women were and as each casket passed, tears streamed down their faces as they held their salute. Later, I asked if they served with these men and one of them said, “Haan ngem uray han mi nga gagayem, kakabbsat mi amin da.” (No, they aren’t our friends but all of them are our brothers.) #salute

January 30, 12:19am Public grieving is a bit funny. Watched ex-generals, some personalities awkwardly approach–some held my hand thinking I was family and in loud voices offered condolences, gave advice as to what medals the boys should have taken home etc etc. Naturally, I couldn’t take the bullshit so I smiled and closed my eyes. Meanwhile, the President and his cabinet members are in a holding room able to comfortably speak to and grieve privately with the families and the SAF Commandos. Maraming salamat din, Sir. Nabalitaan ko sa mga asawa, kapatid, at magulang ng magigiting na naginhawaan daw sila. Happy to be proven wrong. Pero siyempre, justice is the measure. Justice is the measure.

January 31 Overheard last night: “Magiting rin pala ang pulis noh? Hindi pala sila lahat masama.” We have been afraid of them, rightly so because of the few abusive ones who make justice elusive for many. But my takeaway from all of this is understanding institutions. They are complex and not to be judged as a whole but one thing is certain: good men and women, people of integrity–they are the key.

Borrowed words on staying the course.

“…Doing the things you don’t want to do is like running an engine that pushes everything else forward. If you stop doing the things you don’t want to do, because you just don’t want to or don’t feel like it, you also stop paving the way toward fulfilling your goals.

There’s something that happens when you force yourself to do the things you really don’t want to do. It’s a way of feeding yourself power. It’s a way of making yourself stronger. It’s a way of leading as an expression of your passion and commitment, and not necessarily your feelings. It’s a statement, or a declaration, that your commitment is bigger than the circumstances, and that your will is stronger than your [sometimes] lazy mind…”

[Luisa A. Igloria, poet]

Learning to feed myself power–learning to string words together even if (especially when) I don’t feel like it.

F. Sionil Jose at 90: Remarks for a Dear Friend.

An Unusual Birthday Cake

A few weeks ago I was asked to prepare remarks for Manong Frankie’s 90th birthday. A day after having said my piece, I still have to pinch myself and ask if that really happened. Here is the speech as I recall it–I’ve also added things I should have said but missed. Part of me regrets not having typed this all out. I don’t often speak extemporaneously but preparing for this was difficult. How does one capture the essence of a man and his impact on one’s life in three minutes tops? How do I to talk about the books and the way his words have sparked and sealed my love for my motherland? I can’t do it all in one speech–but if you catch me somewhere, somehow, I will tell you everything and there is so much to tell.

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December 3, 2014, Cultural Center of the Philippines

Ten years ago, I would have been happy just to read you but tonight, allow me to honor you. You are ahead of me by 64 years, a lifetime in itself! You are one of my dearest friends and I have only gratefulness to share.

I am grateful to a certain Miguel, who, when we were both sophomores in high school, thought it sophisticated to read aloud lines from your book, Platinum. This was how I discovered you. He was trying to woo me but alas, I ended up with you instead, Manong.

I am grateful to the Jose family. If it’s true that your father writes from life then he’s not only shared his own life but yours in the many pages of his work. You form part and parcel of the Filipino story–the one your father likes to tell–and I can only imagine what this must have cost you by way of privacy and time with him. You’ve given us so much and though your family is big by comparison, I appreciate feeling like the youngest daughter. Your warmth and love encourages that.

I am grateful to Tita Tessie who is patient beyond compare. You (Manong) have grown old and difficult, often saying things you should never say in public for fear of losing friends–but just look at this crowd gathered here tonight, Manong.

We’re all here to celebrate you.

If there’s one thing you’ve taught me by your own example, it’s that a writer’s integrity is paramount.

I am grateful to you. You are ahead of me by 64 years and there is very little by way of experience that binds us but the time you give young writers like me, the way you listen, the effort you take to break bread with us and do as friends do–that’s what I cherish.

I can spend the next twenty years of my life explaining how deeply your words and your friendship has meant to me but I know you’ll have none of that. You’d rather I find my own voice and write. So I will.

But let me just say, and I’ll end with this: It’s difficult to be young these days and find reason to love one’s country. It’s lonelier still to love it because so few really do–and this is why our friendship means the most to me. So many of our leaders have let us down and even in the realm of literature and art, we are not spared from betrayal. But I just want you to know–you haven’t let me down. You haven’t let me down.

Happy birthday, Manong.

Blowing his candles.One last thing. This isn’t the first time I’ve celebrated him. Here’s an excerpt from an article I did for Rogue Magazine a year ago:

I have been in and out of Solidaridad many times over the past years. I keep the tradition of going in the afternoon and staying as long as Mang Frankie will allow my curiosity. We’ve shared many differences in opinion and though neither of us backs down, the steam we generate only triggers more pressing and vital questions. In the middle of a tirade against our constant forgetfulness, I watch as one of the most brilliant Filipino savants devours a doughnut. Harsh words are then tempered by the sugar that forms on his lips and immediately, I am endeared to this old man who despite his age still relishes the company of someone equally as stubborn, but less informed.

Civility.

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Two guys share a smoke from a distance. They quickly toss the butts away when I pass them. Proof yet again that the most civilized people I know are often dirt poor, hungry, pushed by society into being monstrous. “There’s no dignity in being poor.” This debate has been running between me and an octogenarian for years now. He tells me I’m giving excuses, trying to look for silver linings to prettify a picture, to contain the objective reality. I am about to concede. Perhaps he is right. But isn’t this nice? Sharing a smoke with a friend, the last bastion of civility in fantastic conditions.